The icons of New Zealand fashion: Zambesi. Kate Sylvester. Trelise Cooper. Karen Walker. Tom Sainsbury…?
Beloved for his witty takes on Kiwis both famous and fictitious, fashion might not seem like the obvious line of questioning but it plays a strong part in crafting Tom's beloved characters. We sat down to talk with the comedian and actor about kimonos, novelty ties, and how ‘Judith Collins’ can be dressed straight from his own wardrobe.
We start with Paula Bennett, because well, she’s a very good place to start. In terms of fashion, the real Paula takes more fashion “risks” than most politicians have in the last 10 years. Not since Nándor Tánczos’ army surplus style (and perhaps Christine Rankin’s earring collection) have we seen such eschewing of the obvious political fashion norms.
Tom’s ‘Paula’ has seen her fashion evolve. “In the beginning, it would depend on what her character was doing – she would wear a cap and have gym gear on if she was doing exercise, or there was just a lot of leopard print."
"For about a year and a half, all she’s worn is kimonos,” says Tom. It became another running joke, along with the bowl lattés and paninis. Fans started sending in kimonos for ‘Paula’ to wear. Tom even gifted the real life Paula a very special kimono as a keepsake; bless.
Real Paula’s own sense of fashion evolved too. “I would definitely notice it,” notes Tom. “Rather than try and replicate it, it was more like, ‘what does this mean for her character?’”
In terms of sourcing clothing for his characters, you may well spot Tom browsing the women’s section at Kmart. “I get a lot of tops from there, mainly because it’s a great place to find sizes that fit my broad shoulders.” (This too shows the genius of the kimono – throw it on and away you go. A life hack embraced by many women around NZ already.)
Judith Collins, the character, is also a fan favourite. Tom’s ‘Judy’ is a Jack Daniels-swigging, gun toting hard-ass who retreats to her cave in the evening to hang upside down. What else should she be wearing then, than an almost vampiric black coat? That item came from Tom’s own wardrobe.
He recently spotted the real Judith wearing a leather jacket in a couple of TV interviews, so that’s the next item on his shopping list. It’s a far cry from the floral scarves we’ve usually seen carefully draped over the National leader. “I don’t know if her stylist just didn’t get to her in time, or if that was a conscious decision,” says Tom. “It’s a bit tough I guess. It certainly gives her a tough exterior”.
When it comes to the PM, “Jacinda dresses for business,” says Tom. “She looked beautiful when she went to Buckingham Palace”.
The real Jacinda is often seen in Kiwi labels like Juliette Hogan and Kate Sylvester. It’s a far cry from the Kmart ensembles Tom throws together for his version of ‘Cindy’. His take also smokes like a chimney and swears like nobody’s business, so you can forgive him for taking some liberties on the fashion front.
The men in politics are so much simpler. More often than not, it’s a white shirt and tie.
“Ties are fascinating. Why do they exist?” ponders Tom. “When you put on a tie, you suddenly become more formal and sharp."
It’s obvious who gets which tie: blue for Gerry Brownlee, maroon for Grant Robertson (because apparently red ties are hard to come by) and green for James Shaw.
“Novelty ties are hilarious,” quips Tom. Not seen often in politics these days, it’s Dr Ashley Bloomfield who Tom thinks is most likely to have a few novelty ties stashed away. Perhaps something to match his Tardis face mask?
The reality is though, there isn’t one clear male political figure who takes risks with fashion. “They’re all so boring.”
Hillary Clinton also recognised this early on in her political career. In her book What Happened she wrote, “When I ran for Senate in 2000 and President in 2008, I basically had a uniform: a simple pantsuit, often black, with a colourful shell underneath. I did this because I like pantsuits. They make me feel professional and ready to go. I also thought it would be good to do what male politicians do and wear more or less the same thing every day. A uniform was also an anti-distraction technique: since there wasn’t much to say or report on what I wore, maybe people would focus on what I was saying instead.”
She used a similar tactic in 2016, but her fashion choice became so iconic that a supporters group called “Pantsuit Nation” was formed. Not quite as under the radar as Hillary might have hoped.
Could this thinking be a little outdated? Tom believes so.
“Fashion isn’t used enough in politics. The general rule would be, don’t draw attention to your clothes, which is a shame.”
Tan France from Netflix’s Queer Eye would back this theory up. In his recently released Masterclass, he explains: “To anyone who thinks, Clothes are just clothes, style is superficial – actually it has had a massive impact on my life and everybody who I work with. By making an effort with your style, you are saying, ‘I deserve your respect.’”
Even science agrees. Not only does clothing change how others perceive us, it changes how we perceive ourselves. A 2012 study by Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky found that formal clothing directly affects the wearer’s cognition, influencing them to think broadly and abstractly — which is to say, to think just like leaders do. The phenomenon even has a name: enclothed cognition.
So do the clothes help Tom ‘think like leaders do’?
“Yes absolutely. I think regardless of the character, shoes always help. Not that I do shoes for the videos. Usually it’s just trackpants or shorts underneath…or my hairy legs and some boxer shorts.”